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Neil Armstrong on moon
A view from the Apollo 11 lunar module shows mission commander Neil Armstrong collecting a sample of lunar dust and rocks. At his feet is the handle for the sample collection tool. (NASA Photo / Andy Chaikin / CollectSpace.com)

The 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing was payday for a Chicago-area lawyer who latched onto a moondirt sample bag from the mission and wouldn’t let go.

The Sotheby’s auction house said the 8-by-12-inch bag was sold to an undisclosed buyer for more than $1.8 million, including the buyer’s premium. That’s a bit less than the pre-sale estimate of $2 million to $4 million, but notable for historical reasons as well as the price.

Nancy Lee Carlson, an attorney who’s also a space fan, bought the bag for $995 on a federal auction website in 2015. Unknown to her, the bag was the subject of a museum scandal years earlier. It had been seized by federal authorities in the course of prosecuting the case and was mistakenly put up for sale to seek restitution.

Lunar sample return bag
Apollo 11’s crew stored lunar soil samples in this storage bag, and the fabric is still laced with moondust. (Sotheby’s Photo)

When Carlson brought her purchase to NASA for authentication, the space agency confiscated it as ill-gotten government property. NASA argued that the bag “belongs to the American people and should be on display for the public,” as most of Apollo’s space-flown artifacts are.

Apollo lunar samples rank among the most highly prized of NASA’s artifacts, and objects that bear even a light sprinkling of moondust are rarely sold. (Seattle’s Museum of Flight has some moon-flown objects, including a moon rock and a checklist from Apollo 12, on display as part of its current “Apollo” exhibit.)

After NASA took the bag away, Carlson went to federal court to get it back, and a judge ruled that she should have it. She subsequently decided to sell the bag, with some of the proceeds going to charities.

The bag was the headliner in a 48th-anniversary auction of space artifacts and memorabilia that brought in $3.8 million in all. Other big-ticket items included a signed Apollo 13 flight plan ($275,000) and signed photographs of Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin and Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke on the lunar surface ($35,000 and $37,500, respectively).

Every July 20 is worth celebrating, to recall the day in 1969 when humanity first set foot on a world beyond Earth. Thanks to Apollo 11, “the Eagle has landed” and “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” will live on as catchphrases for exploration.

But space historians are already looking ahead to the 50th anniversary in 2019: For example, Space Center Houston, the visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, today launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that’s aimed at boosting the restoration of the center’s Apollo-era Mission Control Center in time for the golden-anniversary party.

Speaking of crowdfunding, a startup called AstroReality is in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign for a high-definition moon mini-globe and augmented-reality app, timed to coincide with the 48th anniversary. And the U.S. Mint is sponsoring a design competition for curved commemorative coins that will be issued for the 50th anniversary.

Meanwhile, space ventures are looking ahead to a new era of moon missions, perhaps including moneymaking operations. Moon Express, for example, is gearing up for a series of commercial moonshots that could begin by the end of the year.

Today Lockheed Martin announced that it would be retrofitting a space station cargo carrier to serve as a full-scale, ground-based prototype for a space habitat. Such a habitat could become part of NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space – that is, the vicinity of the moon.

Lockheed Martin NextSTEP habitat
An artist’s rendering shows Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP habitat docked with an Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit as part of a concept for NASA’s Deep Space Gateway. (Lockheed Martin Illustration)

At this week’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference, billionaire Robert Bigelow made a strong pitch for setting up expandable habitats on the lunar surface. And SpaceX’s Elon Musk said having a moon base should be part of the push toward Mars settlement.

Americans aren’t the only ones talking about setting up shop on the lunar surface: China and Russia have been talking about trips to the moon as well. Later this year, China is scheduled to launch what could be the first lunar sample return mission since the Apollo era.

Is a new moon race in the offing? That’s the theme of reports today from National Geographic and Bloomberg News. It’s not clear how many of these lunar dreams will become realities, but at least they give us something to moon over on this Apollo 11 anniversary.

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